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US Supreme Court to Decide School Choice Issue - 2002-02-24

A divisive national debate over whether government money should be used to help parents send their children to private religious schools instead of public schools is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Whichever way the high court rules is likely to have a profound impact on the American educational system.

Outside the Supreme Court this week, supporters and detractors of school voucher programs struggled to get their point across.

At issue is a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, in which parents who choose to send their children to private schools are eligible for government funding, or a voucher, to help pay the cost of tuition. The program was set up six years ago to give parents an alternative to declining public schools in Cleveland.

Roberta Kitchen sends her daughter to a private school in Cleveland. She says the government assistance she receives to pay the tuition is money well spent. "I also stop and talk to the principal who knows my child by name," she says. "I ask how she's doing. I can go to any teacher and say, 'would you move my child to the front or to the back or to another room because she has trouble concentrating', and I get a result. I could not do that, I tried to do that in the public school and I could not do that."

Advocates of school vouchers have seized on the Cleveland case in an effort to promote expansion of the program nationwide. Clint Bolick is with a private legal group called the Institute for Justice. "If the public schools cannot do the job, if they are failing, then we ought to look for alternatives and that is exactly what happened in Cleveland," he says. "These kids, in many instances, would not be getting an education at all if they were not going to these schools at public expense."

Voucher critics counter that spending taxpayer money on private school tuition is misguided. Tom Mooney of the Ohio Federation of Teachers says that money would be better spent trying to improve public schools: "And we know that investing in higher quality pre-school works and those are the things we should be investing in instead of diverting $15 million this year from the Cleveland public schools where 77,000 kids could benefit from that money instead of the relative handful who in fact are not showing academic gains above their counterparts in public schools in any case," he says.

At the heart of the legal issue now facing the Supreme Court is whether government support for private schools, including those that promote a religious doctrine, violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.

Voucher supporters contend their program is constitutional because parents can choose to send their child to secular or religious private schools.

But opponents argue that the vast majority of parents taking part in the Cleveland program are sending their children to religious schools and that the end result is government promotion of religious doctrine.

Among the voucher opponents is Barry Lynn, head of an organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State: "To force Americans to subsidize religious views with which they disagree is literally at the heart of tyranny. [Former President Thomas] Jefferson said it first. Tax dollars cannot fund tuition in religious secondary and elementary schools," he says.

At present, only a few states offer voucher programs. But both sides in the debate agree that a Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers could encourage expansion of the program throughout the country.

The high court is expected to rule on the case by the end of June.